The Tourist Who Knows Is A Safer And Happier Tourist

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Pablo Edronkin

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Being a passenger in any kind of vehicle is by no means an excuse to ignore what is happening around you. Indeed, flying or sailing are skills that require a lot of training and common tourists would not have a clue on how to steer a ship using a sextant and a rudder, or how to fly a plane. But at least, you should know the route that you are taking, where are you, perhaps the weather ahead and details about the places that you will pass by flying, driving or navigating over the surface.

What would happen, for instance, if the cruise you are on suffers a problem? Or if the plane has to land due to some malfunction? You should know at least that you may be in such or such place, have some cash with you or how to reach someone that may help you. Indeed, the crew of the vessel you are traveling in should help, but what if they suddenly become unavailable for whatever reason?

For some readers this might seem a paranoid way of thinking, and perhaps, if you travel between Dover and Calais only, it may not be necessary. However, when you visit other parts of the world the story may be quite differently; even language barriers may provide for misunderstandings: your local guide at Dilolo may think that you want to continue strolling alone this afternoon, and leave you where you are while the only think you may want is a cold beer.

This is why it is important to keep your mind working as you are taken from one place to another; being a passenger is not a license to become a couch potato. An informed tourist is a safe tourist, nobody will take unfair advantage of you and you will generally enjoy much more your visits to strange and exotic lands.

The first thing to learn is how to navigate; this doesn’t mean to become a ship’s captain, but how to find how to go from point A to point B, no matter what kind of vehicle or equipment you may use. It is not difficult, albeit it requires some practice.

Take a vacation!

There is no excuse for taking short vacations here and there thorough the year, besides the traditional ones in summer and winter.

There is a discipline called human factors, which studies human performance and human behaviour, as related mostly to safety and accidentology. This discipline is widely used in high-risk environments such as aeronautics and astronautics, and the goal of its study is to prevent serious human mistakes.

From this discipline we know - this is a scientific fact, despite what your supervisor at you job may say - that after a certain number of hours - five, to be precise - human performance decreases, and after seven, working becomes counterproductive because the number of mistakes make coasts soar so high as to equal or surpass any profit.

And a similar thing happens if you work uninterruptedly for a number of days; so, corporate policies seeking to exploit workers with long hours during most days of the week are simply flawed. They will never work and this is as certain as the distance to the Moon. So, it is in the interest of everyone to keep people working happily and efficiently, and for you as a worker, life is also to be enjoyed. There is a world outside your cubicle, you know.

This is not to promote laziness, but a better and more productive lifestyle. It would make no sense to work untill you drop to the floor.

Travel is in our nature

We, present-day humans think that sedentary life has always been our way of doing things; however, nomadic behavior and moving from one part to another of the world has been part of our species longer, much longer, than suburbia in any of its inceptions.

We have been roaming the planet for some years since our ancestors went down from trees in Africa because the changing climate dried up the jungles in which they lived, forcing primates along the east side of the continent to develop new ways to survive.

Going down from trees changed the posture of these animals from quadruped to bipedal; that freed their hands to perform manual work using their already fairly developed brains, and so the human species began.

Since then we have been constantly on the move; even now we are trying to reach outer space. Primitive humans began to aggregate or join together in small groups for protection and to improve their chances while hunting prey. They began moving seasonally, and so the first nomadic groups, and then tribes, were born.

These went from Africa into the Middle East and Asia, and from there to Europe and America, until they reached Tierra del Fuego about 6.000 years ago.

And as these nomadic tribes moved, climate continued changing in different areas around the world: as the last ice age ended in what is now Europe and the Middle East, it forced a change of habits since animal and vegetal species that had previously adapted to deep cold climate began to go extinct; these species were used by those humans to survive and suddenly, they were left with nothing.

About 12.000 years ago, humans began to settle and develop agriculture as hardships increased; it was not an easy change and brought a lot of problems, but climate change ended our nomadic cycle, and turned us into what we are now. Things like the ability to write, religion and science come from that; is climate change going to force new momentous changes in the way we live and evolve?

A brief history of travel restrictions

Curiously enough, as commerce puts in touch countries and nations together and the world becomes technically more accessible for an increasing numbero of people, political decisions and government policies tend to impose more administrative restrictions against travel, tourism and the free movement of people (see Ships of Adventure, Exploration and Survival).

We tend to see things in a simplistic way: North Korea imposes travel restrictions and in the Western world we are free, right? Within the European Union one can move with absolute freedom, right? Not so, and perhaps in past times the situation was actually better: in medieval times, pilgrims going from northern Europe and into Rome often had to stop and wait near Lucerne before the weather cleared and any attempt to cross the Alps was made. Guru apprentices in India had to watch for brigands and an ocassional babirusa swine (Babirussa babyrussa) on some forsaken trail, but nothing else. Now, you can get killed as easily as so long ago and you suffer all sorts of delays at airports, stations and so on.

The very concept of citizenship is alien to human nature: it is a creation of gubernamental officials trying to limit the movements of people they couldn’t trust and a way to know from whom they could fetch some tax money, particularly while in a trip: cargo ships over the Rhine often had to pay at nearly ninety different virtual toll boots armed with catapults and then cannons, as technology permitted. That’s why there are so many interesting castles there.

In the early 1830s, the movement of people in Europe became even more difficult as empires sought to betray one another, and within this context, small nations like Switzerland and Monaco thrived: it is no coincidence at all that there is a perfect match between the creation of the Montecarlo casino, the Swiss secret banking system and the surge of restrictive measures then and there.

The reason was those small countries began satisfying some needs expressed by citizens from the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Germany, mainly, because their own governments began turning their life into a constant trouble that of course, ended with the wars of then nineteenth and twentieth centures.

Today, the danger of massive terrorist attacks and increasing numbers of people migrating from poor to rich countries is increasing the will and power of governments to control as much as posible regarding the life and freedom of citizens.

Is travel endangered by latent authoritarianism?

After the September 11 attacks on the United States and allegedly for security reasons, governments around the world began passing legislation which basically gives more power to security and intelligence organisms, taking various liberties away from citizens in general. This was justified based on public safety and state security in the struggle against rampant terrorism.

But some years after those tragic events, the number of terrorists caught and the costs and inconveniences caused to tourists and travelers around the world and especially in the United States and the United Kingdom don’t seem to justify those measures. One of them is the preparation of new passports, a feat that now does not depend anymore on local consulates for those citizens living away from their home countries, but in centralized offices which are allegedly easier to control.

Getting a new passport now is more expensive and takes longer than ever, and many different kinds of people will just never get them, like it happened in the Soviet bloc not so long ago. For example, former U.S. military personnel, especially those married to foreigners, are finding rather hard to get new passports these days, probably because intelligence officials fear that they may go to live abroad altogether, depriving them of trained reserves to continue supplying the armed forces in Iraq, short of manpower since the invasion proved to be not what many thought it would.

Travel If You Want, But Big Brother Will Watch You Anyway, Unless...

Whenever you travel abroad, you use a credit card or some for of internationally accepted payment method in order to get a hotel room, a train ticket and so on; you may also buy souvenirs for your family and friends, and perhaps some things like jewels or handcrafted items that are cheap there but very valuable at home. Sounds like a good, discrete investment, but remember: Big Brother will be watching.

Big Brother is your government, and they surely know ever little thing that you do with your credit card; it’s not that hard, you know, and this is no conspiracy theory. For example, if you visit Slovakia in order to buy garnets, rather cheap gemstones there, in order to make a good investment, the IRS or your local tax revenue office will know, and they will try to tax you on that, even if you buy the stones legally and in another jurisdiction in which they – supposedly – have no business in.

It is indeed true that citizens should pay taxes, but fiscal voracity is also a fact of life and international travelers are prime targets for all sorts of fees, fines and ways to take away money because it is assumed that in order to travel, you should have money indeed. And while we should all stay within the law, no law can punish you for trying to pay the least if you do so legally and without breaching any rule.

Whenever you have to prepare your tax returns, you try to pay the lesser amount; that’s legal. But what governments don’t want travelers to know is that they can also avoid – legally – to pay a lot of taxes and fees posterior to their trips just by making some adjustments in the way they pay their bills away from home.

One of such ways is not to use a credit card but a debit card of the sort offered by e-money companies. These debit cards make it impossible for the tax snoops to track your private payment life, and since such companies operate on the premise that they are fully online entities with no “earthly” physical presence in a traditional jurisdiction, there is no way for them to suck any more of your financial blood. We must stress that such operations are fully legal because cyberspace is not the territory of any country and thus, no revenue agency can legally claim any fee for what happens there.

Get an offshore bank account and a credit card if you think your privacy is worth anything.

Are We Really Free To Travel, To Speak And To Live?

In today’s world, when you check-in at an airport, your identity is verified; when you arrive into your hotel, your ID is verified again. When you buy something with your credit card, it is verified yet once more, and even when you go to an ATM you have to give proof that you are who you pretend to be.

In fact, there are more identity controls today, in any modern, free society than during any of the military dictatorships that governed Latin America for so many years. The world today seems closer to a Gestapo controlled society than ever before, and it is no exaggeration: we are being constantly monitored and controlled, and under such circumstances, freedom of speech, movement, action or travel becomes somewhat more academic.

It is true to say that all these measures serve to prevent crime, terrorism and so on, but then again, there is more terrorism and crime in this brave new world that our forefathers experienced. So this is something like a social system of action against the individual on feedback. Also, tax revenue agencies use this allegedly to control money laundering and other dubious financial activities yet, the result for everyone is that the tax people are really pepping into our wallets all the time.

We don’t have the level of privacy that we used to have twenty years ago; we may not think about the fact every day because surveillance cameras in subway stations, bus stops, airports, inside buses – there are indeed – inside buildings, on the streets and so on are fairly discrete, but we are all now living in a gigantic reality show.

Paying taxes is necessary, but there is a moment in which we have to say enough is enough: any modern citizen is giving the state – any state, in any part of the world – as much tax money as a medieval villain or serf used to give. Check this fact for yourself by reading any medieval history book. Where is progress, then?

Controlling terrorism is necessary as well, but do you have to be treated as a suspect at an airport? You are spending in queues and checkpoints as much time as any citizen from any soviet country had to spend before traveling, and the ways in which a migrations or custom official can separate you from the line and send you to a little room where you will literally be stripped naked to see if you don’t hide a bomb in your lower intestines is not so different from what those soviet guards with furry hats and AK-47s used to do. Check for yourself.

All these measures are dangerous; we are slipping into a perilous position of weakness in which any kind of government with authoritarian designs may at any moment take complete control of our society, our money and our lives. This is no conspiracy theory: like in chess, all pieces are in the right position. So we need o change; technology is not bad. What is wrong is the way in which it being used.

There are, of course, good reasons for any state to develop good intelligence about potential dangers of all kinds, ranging from climate change and weather forecasts to spying on terrorist cells; but none of that can and should be done by severing individual rights, and this invasion of privacy is exactly that, and while laws say that such is not the case, there is a question that you should keep be asking yourself: are you sure that laws can’t be tampered with by politicians and various interest groups?

Remember that Hitler managed to do everything by the numbers: every thing that he and his political fans did was done according to Third Reich law and of ocurse, according to the same laws and principles, everything they did was necessary and there was a very rational explanation for every single decision or action taken... so much for written rules. By the way, Adolf Hitler was also elected into office.

Incognito is an interesting word that is becoming increasingly difficult to apply in our modern world; those looking for anonymity and discretion are finding it difficult to get thanks or more properly, because of modern technology.

Some people want to pass unnoticed, some people want to travel without calling the attention of others, from tabloid journalists to tax agencies. The desire of privacy is a legitimate one, albeit of course, sometimes it is used for illegal purposes, but aside from legal considerations, it is becoming a hard thing to get.

There are ways to travel incognito, and there are ways to finance your activities in a similar fashion as well in order to escape those prying eyes that are everywhere: your tax revenue agency of choice gets the information it wants to such a good 35% of your income – at least – from your credit card and ATM usage, and at the same time, modern criminals use the same means to get the same information to steal things from you.

It is not technology the culprit but people, and we think that even the government should face more severe restrictions on the use they make of technology for various reasons that vary from your right to privacy to the dangers of the accumulation of power and control over citizens, but in the meantime, if you want to travel in complete privacy and discretion, you will have to use other means.

Credit cards and to a lesser extent, ATMs with cameras on them are not advisable as discrete payment forms. Clearly, you will have to use them at least during one part of your trip, but once you got your tickets and pocket money, neither the bank, nor bureaucrats, nor criminals, should know what you are doing, and that is indeed possible.

Safety Versus Vanity

If you travel, it is better to leave your titles behind and go with a passport that portrays you only as a plain citizen.

In some countries the use of titles in passports and other official documents is allowed and that has worked great in the past for those who have privileges, either earned or inherited. But in recent times, the use of feudal or peerage titles, academic achievements and so on has become dangerous.

To put it simply, if you are travelling thorough – say – Nepal, and some Maoist guerrillas stop your bus to ask for a revolutionary tax as they usually do, they will probably check the ID of each passenger to detect any officials from the Nepalese government, policemen and so on.

Normally, tourists are asked in this particular case for a sum in US Dollars or Euros - 30, according to what one of our explorers reported a few months ago -; however, if the commander of that unofficial checkpoint finds out that in the bus there is somebody who is just not anybody he or she may choose to take that person as a prisoner under any pretense – there has never been a lack of that – in order to get a ransom, some political clout to negotiate anything and so on.

So, if you happen to have a passport or ID card that shows your particular rank, title or any kind of distinction, try ot get a new one with nothing to show. It will be better for your health and safety indeed.

Always carry redundant ID documentation

In a society that is supposedly global, bureaucratic obstacles are more elaborate and cumbersome than ever and so, loosing your passport or poof of identity could get you as a traveller into a paperwork nightmare unless you take some measures before departing home.

Use your time onboard to check your documents; if you find something is missing, alert the crew before you get to your destination.

Today we seem to look more like the number in our passport than our picture because of true and imaginary terrorist menaces, as part of sensible security measures and as a pretext for governments around the world to - in our view - needlessly tramp into the private life of common citizens and control them. The obsession about illegal immigration also plays a role into the current state of travel affairs and so, we don't see that anytime soon things will ease for the honest business traveller or tourist.

Finding yourself suddenly in front of the immigration desk without your papers have always been problematic but these days it can cause you major trouble, including jail for weeks until everything is sorted out. So, it is advisable to carry at least two proofs of identity, like your passport and your national ID card, in order to have some way to demonstrate that you are in fact you, even if the loss of your passport will likely still cause some complications.

Don't travel just with your passport; remember to carry two official-issue ID documents and store them in different places, so if one gets lost or robbed, odds will still play for you. This may seem a little paranoid, but bet on the fact that governments are still more paranoid than you or we are.

Beware of tickets

Air fares do not necessarily tell the whole story.

Travel conditions have not improved in recent years due to the awful events that took place on September 11, 2001. Airlines face increasing costs and decreasing profits and must stay competitive in order to survive. However, the old recipe of price wars that was so common after the de-regulation of air routes, beginning back in the 1970 does not work anymore since costs are now actually higher than in the past.

So, airlines are using more and more different marketing and sales techniques to attract passengers which are not necessarily true, in a sense, meaning that the messages sent as publicity don't tell the whole truth.

And the truth is that tickets cost a lot more now than before: the prize of fuel has increased, privatized airports now charge much higher rental fees, aircraft service fees and right-of-use costs. Parking a nice airliner for just an hour may cost more than a thousand dollars.

Then, government officials want more money for alleged security reasons and since all these service providers for airliners charge more, others that have no reason to do so - like the companies that produce the food that you receive onboard - piggyback on the trend too.

Airlines are really hard pressed and cannot tell passengers that what ten years ago meant $500 for their pockets now mean $1000, for the same or worse service. So they are presenting air fares as "basic" ones, and then you have to add all the additionals.

It seems that these additionals now are reaching about 40% of the basic fare, so be careful because these days, if you feel too tempted by a "basic" fare, you may find out that you will pay much more.

You are not invulnerable against delays

Nothing is perfect and things that could fail never fail to fail, so whenever you organize a trip consisting in one or more stopovers, assume that delays are not only possible but probable and never think that everything will take place according to ideal standards.

A blizzard, union disputes, technical failures, bureaucracy at customs or migrations desks, a flock of birds out of place, low or high tides, tropical storms, hail, an accident or any such occurrence among a vast natural catalogue of ways to delay people can fall upon you at any stopover, causing delays that could make you miss your next train, fight, bus or boat.

Assuming that everything works perfectly in life we tend to make our stopovers the shortest possible but this is a mistake. While spending just a couple of minutes in a place we don not intend to visit may save us a little time, the risk of losing our connections may be too much of an inconvenience, especially if we don't travel much or for business. After all, one hour more or less there - at least in most places - will not kill anybody.

Never structure your trips estimating that you will spend less than two hours plus the time to get from the arrival to the departure point. That is, if it takes you thirty minutes to rush from the arrival gate at an airport to the one where your next flight departs, add to that two hours. In this way your stopover will last for two and a half hours, and if you need one hour to go from such A to B points, consider three as a minimum.

Travel not to teach, but to learn

Travel has been an essential part of human culture long since before writing evolved somewhere in the Middle East about six or seven thousand years ago. Most of the evolution of humankind took place in a nomadic existence which is by definition, adventure travel in its purest form.

The first humans appeared in Africa about three million years ago, a number that pales with comparison with other species, for crocodiles, for examples, have been around for nearly two hundred and fifty million years. But in these short three million years, humans went from Africa into the Middle East, and from there to Europe, India, the Far East and the American continent – that includes the whole thing from Canada to Argentina, which is the semantically and historically correct thing to do -. The last humans that took part of this gigantic migration settled around the Magellan Strait only six thousand years ago.

Along the way, fascinating civilizations evolved, some seemingly overnight, while others taking their time to evolve. China is probably the oldest state in continuous existence, and probably the oldest nation – culturally speaking too -, albeit if you consider the Australian aborigines not just a culture but a nation, then you have a group that has been clinging to their traditions for over thirty thousand years: the longest-living deity in the world is theirs, and it is that ancient.

There is a lot to learn about different cultures and nations, but whenever you travel you must keep an open mind: Cortez became horrified with the human sacrifices that the Aztecs found quite amusing, so he decided to butcher the whole barbaric nation he had just conquered, forgetting that burning witches and heretics at the stake was conceptually similar to opening the chests of warriors, prisoners and maidens.

And we still have that kind of incomprehension ingrained: Christians frown upon some Muslim customs and habits, while Muslims think exactly the same about their Western neighbors. The Japanese basically think that the Chinese are inherently faulty, from the ground up, while the Chinese say similar things about the people across the sea of Japan. And even when charitable people go to Africa, to help the poor, there is a certain ‘miasma’ of contempt floating in the air.

Travel should serve to bring people together, to learn about different ways of looking upon the world, so every single tourist or business visitor, every soldier, priest and student going abroad should see him or herself not as someone going to teach anything, but fortunate enough to visit a place where they will learn new things.

How safe is the vehicle in which you travel?

Various accidents around the world, especially regarding aircraft and ships in third world countries are having political effects in various governments, most notably within the European Union, where policy makers are considering the use of black lists of carriers worldwide that do not comply with certain safety regulations, most notably within the realm of commercial aviation. The sinking of a number of boats and ferries, including some carrying E.U. flags, due to a combination of gross mistakes, negligence as well as vaporous regulations should also serve as a warning sign regarding public safety in naval and marine transports that because of their size, can pose a safety risk much larger than even the largest aircraft.

In the past twenty years or so, various large European ferries such as the Herald of Free Enterprise and the Estonia suffered perfectly avoidable emergencies that had catastrophic consequences. The Swedish government, in the case of the Estonia sinking in the Baltic, outside Sweden’s territorial waters, has been trying to prevent any further investigation by discouraging scuba divers and submarine detectives from reaching the ship’s remains by all means. It is to be noted that the Estonia received a good standing after it had been inspected by Swedish authorities a few days before the event.

A fire inside a Norwegian ferry in 1989 that ended in many deaths, basically caused no legal harm to the officers responsible for the vessel and its passengers: for dozens of deaths the ships’ captain, its first officer as well as various company officials received little more that a suspension o their licenses for a few months.

This shows perhaps a pattern of legal conduct that is very discouraging for passengers and crewmembers in general, for it seems to signal that whenever you have some degree of economic power or political clout, you can drown truth along sunken vessels, even in countries that boast allegedly incorruptible political and legal systems. Consumer advocates beware!

Finding good travel partners

Going on a trip or expedition with others means that you and all members of the groups will have to agree, verbally or not to certain rules. You will have to eat things that are acceptable to everyone, at least most of the times. You will have to share your privacy in many occasions, you will have to borrow or lend money, photo cameras, your Discman or MP3 player and so on.

It is very important to find good travel companions.

Things may work very well for short periods of time, but on trips longer than one or two weeks, some trouble might arise, and this will be inversely proportional to the quantity and depth of shared interests among all the members of a group. This applies to all kinds of people: astronauts and cosmonauts know very well that compatibility among the crew members of a spaceship is essential for good team work, habitability and even security.

There is a concept called intraspecific aggression that deals with this issue and explains how things that usually begin very well sometimes end in sour tears; more essentially, knowledge of this concept will allow you to avoid falling into this common trap and how to get out of it if necessary.

People think differently; there is no right recipe for thought and no one can claim to be better than others at defining things like culture, religion, work, the concept of success and the kind of things that are related to one’s aspirations in life.

Even when we thing about ostensibly similar things, we may really have in our minds very different images: if we start to think about dogs, you may remember that you have to feed your Rottweiler, while I witness how my Cocker jumps into my bed and chooses a pillow as his place to sleep an hour or so. Similar concepts often entail different concepts.

And this can destroy more than one budding relationship if not properly considered; so, if you happen to find the “right person” overseas, jump in excitement all the time if you want, but also consider that in order to keep your relationship alive, you will have to open your mind to cultural differences and other ways of doing things.

Talk about your differences with your partner and of course, travel as often as you can in order to get a better grasp of the other lifestyle that you will hopefully soon share at least to some degree.

Travel accounting and finances

We travel with friends because it is nice to have company around us, but in order to make it good company and keep it that way, one thing must remain constantly under supervision: money and the way in which it is used during each excursion.

Money breaks marriages, kills people and causes a lot of trouble around the world, so it is indeed a sensitive issue, and the best way to keep your friends is to settle any outstanding money issues as soon as possible. During trips and excursions of all sorts, such outstanding issues appear all the time because for practical reasons, it is one person among many in a group that pay for – say – a restaurant dinner one evening, and perhaps it is another who pays the roller coaster tickets the next morning.

So after a while, the state of the group’s finances may start looking like a financial market, and there is a lot of potential grudge fuel there, eve if the amounts are petty: people may resent paying more than others not only because of the amounts involved, but for the fact that they feel cheated.

Numbers should be clearly understandable for all those involved in the trip; it is advisable to put someone specifically in charge of counting the money and keeping records of each expenditure, and it is also recommendable that this person keeps everyone informed of the state of the union every day, how much has been spent, who paid for different things, how much is thus owed by the others and so on.

In this way, every little deviation from the norm, every mistake or misunderstanding will be corrected rapidly and with little trouble, and friends will still be friends. Remember what Macchiavelly wrote: "Men forgive sooner the murder of their fathers than the loss of what is in their pockets."

Travel And Mobile Computing

The kind of variety, types and nature of applications that people can find for computer hardware and software within the context of outdoor activities is staggering: you can use computers to read cartography, navigate using global positioning systems, write a diary or log, and even communicate thorough the internet, access databases and bibliography, and many more things.

But the problem found in most of these cases is that computer hardware currently on the market has been designed usually for an office environment. Plus, applications like those required outdoors, especially in a scientific realm, require a lot of computing power. Both factors demand quality computer equipment: if you are traveling thorough a glacier in Greenland or Patagonia, if you are at a research base or outpost in Antarctica, or crossing the Indian ocean in a sailboat, and you depend on computers, they should operate and remain reliable all the time.

This means that you do not need just the basic, usual equipment, like a notebook computer, a battery and a leather carrying case. You will have to protect your hardware and instruments from environmental aggression in the form of heat, cold, dust, moisture, bumps and even falling rocks; you will also need to feed your batteries with some sort of re-charger using solar, hydraulic or wind energy, and even tools to perform basic repairs.

Thus, the purchase of such equipment for outdoor usage requires an additional budget, and in the case of people working for official institutions or others that require discriminated numbers, this budget should be thoroughly prepared well in advance.

Another factor to consider is the survivability of the situation for the equipment that you intend to carry: going from city to city to do business will not challenge most portable computing items and accessories, but if you have to get out of the road and into wild territory, moisture, vibrations and even chemical agents may cause a lot of harm to unprotected or unprepared equipment; just think of what volcanic ashes or oil fumes in oilfields and refineries can do to electronic components.

Such situations may require industrial or military-grade computing equipment. These products are not so aesthetically appealing as traditional products, and they tend to be more expensive as well. However, investing in such mobile equipment may soon prove more reasonable than seeing a nice palmtop computer converted into a heap of hi-tec garbage in an instant.

Similar doesn’t mean equal: Of bananas In The Pampas and trains in Laos

We all have a blurry vision of distant lands and cultures; regions look all the same from a distance, and neophytes will be hard pressed to see real differences between – say Russia and Ukraine, or Uruguay and Paraguay. The all look the same, more or less, but differences does exist.

Sometimes, that ignorance can be transformed in money: Heino, the famous German folk and popular music singer made himself a fortune singing about gauchos drinking gin and whisky and dancing tangos in Rio de Janeiro, in a bar at the harbor; and for all those who don’t know how things are going in South America, gauchos neither live in Brazil but Argentina, they never dance tango, which is a style from another region of the country, and as far as we saw over many years, they don’t seem to drink neither whisky nor gin.

No bananas in the land of the gauchos.

And to sum up everyting I this picture, gauchos don’t work or live near harbors: they are people from the pampas, the great and fertile plains that lie thousands of kilometers south from Rio: gauchos don't abound in tropical or subtropical regions, but thrive in milder climates like what you will find in the pampas, and the deep freeze of Patagonia.

But Heino made himself a fortune telling Germans who wanted to hear about bananen just what they wanted to hear, and what can we say? Artistic license... and a lot of money; bravo for Heino, pity for reality.

And whenever you travel, these apparently slight differences may make a huge difference: in Indochina there are, of course, railways. But if you ask for a sleeping car in Vietnam, they will give you a ticket ? more expensive than other options, indeed ? and you will get a bed onboard a train. However, if you ask for the same in Laos, what you will get is just a place inside a cargo car where you will ? if lucky ? be able to tie up a hammock; so these apparently very similar countries for the outsider. In Vietnam you will get various classes and prices for rail travel; in Laos, trains are much more primitive.

And no tango bars either...

So, if you want to travel covering various different countries that lie in a far away region, despite that you might see them as similar, be aware of the cultural differences that surely exist, and don?t expect to find bananas in the pampas.

That expensive luggage... Is really worth it?

Some people like to buy expensive suitcases to travel; there are brands selling travel items and accessories so costly that you could buy yourself a first class ticket around the world for the same amount. The question is: is it worth it to spend that class of money in suitcases and handbags?

There is really no technical need to buy that hind of travel hardware; your fancy bags will be treated the same way as that student’s backpack sitting on the other side of the aisle. Your high-society, jet-set items will just go to the cargo bay of the plane you are sitting in, just anybody else’s.

Except – that is – if you travel on a private aircraft; good executive jets are meant to provide access to your bags during the flight and are stored in the rear part of the cabin, near the tail. In such cases yes, a nice set of quality – and pricey – suitcases will indeed deliver a certain image to your fellow travel companions who, in turn, will have brought their expensive suitcases for you to look at.

Quality luggage is always beneficial because it will make your life easier, it will reach destination in one piece, and will let you pack your belongings in a quick and convenient way, but there is a point in which quality – in luggage terms – ceases to be an issue of practicality and begins to have to do more with the image – snobbery, some would say – that the owner intends to transmit than with anything else.

If you are a regular at courts and diplomatic events, if you stay frequently in those hotels located in the middle of Tokyo, New York or Prague then, yes, fancy suitcases will help you a bit among the rest of humanity with fancy suitcases. However, paying more than a thousand dollars for a suitcase will in almost every other single situation be too baroque to consider.

Travel is expensive indeed, but there are many ways to reduce costs without saving on fun. These days, as seasons change, merchants and manufacturers are changing their stocks and selling what’s left at very good prices.

One way to save money whenever you start preparing your holidays is to get your gear long before the actual departure date. If you need a backpack, a pair of pants, etc. the most sensible thing to do is to purchase these items some weeks or even months ahead; if you wait until the last moment, you will only end with the leftovers, and that is not good, especially if you are planning some ambitious trip.

So, the secret to get the best gear is to buy it just after the merchants have received them from the manufacturers; there will be then plenty of stocks, the biggest and widest variety that you would eventually get, and the prices will be lower because, yes, as the season approaches, prices start to soar.

Is there room for discount rooms and accommodations?

The air travel industry has advanced in the past years the concept of discount airlines, offering a no-frills service for very reasonable money; will the same happen in the case of hotels?

We still remember times when getting a bungalow or room in a place like the Hotel Marara, in Bora Bora, meant spending about one hundred and twenty five dollars per day. Today, that hotel located in a paradise island of French Polynesia charges about ten times that amount. And the same thing happens everywhere, in every single tourist and travel destination of the planet: lodging and eating are the most expensive part of any trip: just visit the London Soho and ask for a beer in a pub.

Ironically, many - most - price-minded tourists and travelers try to cut unnecessary costs while purchasing transportation tickets, but lose a lot soon afterwards, while booking their hotel rooms because of this peculiarity in the hotel industry: while the travel industry itself - trains, airplanes, etc. - have somewhat lowered their fees over many years, hotels have become increasingly more expensive and less competitive.

Prices surge out of control and in such an environment, it is of little consequence to pay just 20 euros for an air ride in a discount airline, just to spend fifty euros per day for a room in a two-star hotel or lodge in an European city. So, we think that there is a potential market for the hotel equivalent of a discount airline, charging very little for a no-frills service that anyway, most people would welcome.

But while we wait until some entrepreneur develops the idea - we hope to get a commission for thinking about the concept - the only way to achieve a somewhat similar budgetary performance is to visit websites dedicated specifically to providing discount-based lodging reservation services.

Believe us when we say that the savings that you may get are substantial, while getting the same level of service and quality.

Places you should never visit

Once, a former mercenary told us that the most dangerous people are always former fighters - military, guerrilla, etc. - without a job, and it seems to be true.

Places where there is little or no government influence like in Somalia and southern Lebanon, where local warlords or fanatical groups form their own states within the - if any - state, should not be visited even by Red Cross, Red Crescent or NGO workers because there is no other law there but brute force. Those places should be left alone, to evolve on their own or be destroyed by their own political and social concoctions.

Wherever there is a government there is some sort of law and order, even if it leaves much to be desired; nations, ethnical groups, towns or individuals thinking that private armies formed by enthusiasts, fanatics or unemployed veterans are good for them delude themselves. Even Macchiavelli wrote extensively about the issue, and never giving a good opinion about such practices.

Such regions are always problematic and the mere notion of disarming such people entails a lot of risks; integrating them into regular armed forces always failed thorough history, producing a lot of friction among these individuals and the members of those regular forces that see the newcomers as their rivals. Such attempts ended inmore than one civil war in the past.

Places like Chechnya are culturally bound to warfare, both primitive as well as modern in terms of the weapons used. In other places like Iraq factions wait or have been waiting for the death or some iron-fisted leader binding them together, just to kill each other at ease. Those are primitive and seldf-destructive cultures that need to evolve a little before becoming available to tourism, business and social projects.

They should first become tired of war. So, such regions can be easily counted among the most unfortunate around the world even if locals don´t understand their predicament. Don´t go there, and don´t do any business with such people, for your own sake.

However, if you absolutelly want to go to such hellholes, remember that wars are terrible, chaotic, dangerous and unpleasant; they are not exactly the situations of choice for most tourists but Red Cross and Red Crescent volunteers, diplomats and journalists might just have to get even to the frontlines in order to do their job. Some civilians might even travel there to rescue stranded relatives, or to see what is left of their properties and belongings, usually to confront even more dangers than individuals who get there in any sort of official capacity and counting on institutional help.

So, it is always better to seek the help of any of those groups, T.V. crews, diplomats, priests, U.N. workers and others less likely to get threatened, taken as prisoners or even shot at by militants or troops operating in combat areas. Moreover: the pros will likely have some information concerning the potential or present dangers at any given place and time, and may even secure some sort of safe passage.

Another thing to do is to report at your local consulate or embassy, and to state your intentions so that even if you get lost, hurt, stuck fall prisoner or even if you die – consider your family -, someone will be able to track you down. Indeed, everyone will be under a lot of pressure and some may not pay you much attention, so it would be better to act redundantly and tell more than one source about your plans.

And as you travel, consider that at a certain distance, combatants may not distinguish your civilian, non-combatant status and might just shoot at you. Always carry big white pieces of fabric and proper identifiction. If you have a passport of a neutral country use it. You should also be aware that refugees may ask you to help them; put yourself in their place and give them a hand if necessary, but be very careful to remain neutral, avoiding to assist any combatant because that might turn you into a legitimate target, according to the views of others.

Don't gamble on your own life! Remember that war is irrationality at the service of rational destruction.

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